Law professor; memoirist
New Haven, Connecticut
No playdates. No television. No sleepovers. The strict rules that a Yale law professor set for her kids become the basis for a provocative confessional—and a broadside against American parenting.
In publishing Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother this year, you outed yourself as the antithesis of many coddling Western parents. The reaction was vehement.
I was stunned by how the book was received. Much of the book is making fun of myself, and I had hoped people would find it funny. It may be hard to believe, but people who know me think of me as supportive and self-deprecating.
You felt misunderstood?
Very much so. Most people talking about the book had not actually read it. The book is a memoir, not a parenting guide. On the Today show, they introduced me by saying, “People think you’re a monster, that you abused your children.” It was very painful. I broke down a few times, then I thought, I can crawl into a hole or I can be strong. So I went on the road for six months, and appreciated the opportunity to explain myself.
I’m not saying that my way of doing it works for every family. I truly don’t think everybody can do this kind of parenting. It worked for us. It was more about the universal truth that no matter what baggage we bring to raising kids, there’s only so much we can do as parents.
But you also had a lot of supporters.
I did, and I was grateful for their support. Parents of all backgrounds who favor stricter parenting said, “You are so brave, it was always a closet practice to raise our kids this way, and now we don’t have to feel ashamed of what we think is right.” Everybody wants to know why so many Asian kids are good at math and achieve so much, and many readers said, “This is such a relief: it’s not genetic, it’s not in the rice! It’s about hard work, so we can do this!”
Do you think you went too far in showing your uber-strict side?
[My daughter] Sophia said, “You only put extreme moments in the book.” It’s true. I exposed a slice of our life, not the part where we’re lying in bed watching movies. I tell my kids that I love them, like, 10 times a day, and that’s not in the book. But I also sacrifice a tremendous amount for my kids. I don’t just make them work hard—I have to work just as hard to be that kind of mom.
How have your parents influenced the way you raise your kids?
My parents were like so many first-generation immigrants. They worked all the time and saved every penny for their kids’ education. They taught us never to take any opportunity for granted. Also, my mother never complimented me, whereas I compliment my kids constantly. Yet I’m very close with my parents, and I love the way they raised my sisters and me.
What values do you want to instill in your own kids?
Many people don’t realize it, but my book celebrates rebellion. [My daughter] Lulu was a heroine of the book, and she’s a rebel. I admire independent thinkers. I don’t want to have to apologize for doing things differently. I’m proud of it.
Image: Peter Mahakian